COMMANDO – James Horner
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were cinematic rivals throughout the 1980s, going toe-to-toe through a series of increasingly spectacular action movies, as they tried to out-shoot, out-fight, and out-muscle each other to the top of the box office charts. 1985 was arguably the year their battle commenced, as it saw the release of Stallone’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Schwarzenegger’s Commando, the first movie in which the Austrian Oak starred as a contemporary human being, after playing a fantasy warrior in the Conan series, and an unstoppable cyborg in The Terminator. Directed by journeyman Mark L. Lester, Commando saw Schwarzenegger playing John Matrix, a retired elite Black Ops commando who is forced back into action when Arius, the exiled South American dictator he helped depose, kidnaps his daughter, intending to blackmail Matrix into restoring Arius to power. The film, which also starred Rae Dawn Chong, Dan Hedaya, Vernon Wells, and an 8-year-old Alyssa Milano, was critically lambasted, but was a commercial success, and helped initiate Schwarzenegger’s career as a heroic leading man.
The score for Commando was written by James Horner, who had been recommended to director Lester by producer Joel Silver, for whom Horner had scored 48 HRS. in 1982. Commando was the last of Horner’s five major theatrical features in 1985, after Heaven Help Us, Cocoon, Volunteers, and The Journey of Natty Gann, and it’s one of the scores that divides his fans the most. During the 1980s and early 1990s Horner developed what is best described as his ‘contemporary action music style’, which blends a limited orchestral palette with a lot of electronic percussion, keyboards, and unusual specialty instruments, into a musical style that is often described as ‘jazz fusion’. Commando is one of the group of scores that includes things like 48 HRS., Red Heat, and Another 48 HRS., all of which share similar characteristics and approaches, with slight differences in terms of melody and orchestration. Quite how Horner came up with the idea to blend strings with synths, shakuhachi bamboo flutes, steel drums, and saxophones is unclear, but that’s what we have here – and, yes, it’s sometimes as bizarre as it sounds.
There are two themes prominent in the score, both of which are presented in the lengthy “Main Title”. The first is the recurring motif for Matrix himself, a 15-note steel drum cadence that repeats and folds over itself, accompanied by saxophones, shakuhachi, electronics and low brasses. The instrumentation doesn’t seem to have any specific relationship with the location of the film’s action – it takes place in South America, not the Caribbean – and seems to have simply been an example of Horner having fun, playing around with variations on the unconventional instrumental combinations and off-beat rhythmic ideas he first used in 48 HRS. three years previously. The second theme is the relationship theme for Matrix and his young daughter Jenny, a bright and innocent piece for lilting strings that gently underscores the tight and genuinely heartfelt bond between the two. However, after this initial appearance, the Father-Daughter Theme disappears for pretty much the rest of the entire score, leaving Horner to capture Matrix’s unstoppable, single-minded determination with unstoppable, single-minded music.
The bulk of the score follows this pattern thereafter; relentless electronic pulses and pounding, muscular percussion rhythms, overlaid with instrumental blasts from the steel drums, the saxophones, the shakuhachi, and an occasional electric guitar, sometimes solo, sometimes in pairs, sometimes all at the same time. The Matrix Rhythm features strongly in many cues, whenever he is the focus of the attention or doing something significantly cool, but otherwise Horner is all about forward motion and energy, driving forward the story and ensuring that the viewer knows in no uncertain terms that Matrix is not a man to be trifled with.
Cues like “Don’t Disturb My Friend,” “Matrix on the Move,” “Don’t Move,” “Sully Starts to Run,” “Cut to Val Verde,” and “Matrix Climbs Up Bank,” are especially exciting, featuring prominent performances of the Matrix Rhythm. Elsewhere, other cues feature unexpected and interesting instrumental textures, such as the flashy brass trills at the end of “Matrix Hits Swamp,” the feverish sax/guitar combos in the aforementioned pair “Don’t Move” and “Matrix Climbs Up Bank,” and the unusual bullroarer (a weighted piece of wood on a long cord which is swung around the musician’s head to produce a whooshing sound) in “Matrix Breaks Lock,” and which Horner used again in 2003 in his score for The Missing. Some of the action licks are quintessential Horner trademarks, with some of the rhythmic ideas and clapping col legno strings harking back to his writing for scores like Gorky Park, and informing later works like Aliens and Clear and Present Danger.
However, here’s the rub; unless you actually like the bizarre instrumental combinations and rhythms Horner uses throughout the score, it will wear out its welcome really, really fast. Parts of it come across like the most experimental version of improvised jazz, confusing and chaotic and potentially deafening, while others embrace 1980s synth scoring wholeheartedly, playing like a slightly more sophisticated variation on the type of music people like Brad Fiedel, Harold Faltemeyer, Jan Hammer, and Sylvester Levay were writing at the time. This style of scoring, which is heard most prominently in cues like “Matrix Captured/Jenny Tied Up,” and “Soldier Gets Pitchfork/Matrix Runs Up Steps,” has dated quite badly, and unless you have a personal nostalgic attachment to it, it may come across as unbearably kitchy and crude.
For years the score for Commando was one of Horner’s most sought-after works. It was first released in 2003 by Varese Sarabande as part of their CD Club, containing 8 lengthy suites and running for just under 45 minutes. In 2011 it was released again in a more user-friendly arrangement by La-La Land Records, expanded to just over an hour, and including a performance of the wonderfully cheesy rock song “Somewhere, Somehow, Someone’s Gotta Pay,” also known as “We Fight For Love,” performed by the super-group The Power Station that comprised Andy Taylor and John Taylor from Duran Duran, Tony Thompson from Chic, and featured a lead vocal by actor/musician Michael Des Barres. La-La Land’s is my preferred version of the score, and is recommended with a strong word of caution to anyone who wants to delve into this much-maligned corner of James Horner’s discography.
Buy the Commando soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- The Trashmen/The Agency (0:46)
- Main Title (3:45)
- The Helicopter Arrives (0:55)
- Run to the Shed and Chase (2:38)
- Matrix Captured/Jenny Tied Up (1:50)
- Into the Plane (0:53)
- Don’t Disturb My Friend (3:36)
- Matrix Hits the Swamp (1:14)
- Matrix Walks in the Terminal (0:27)
- Matrix on the Move (0:48)
- Don’t Move (6:30)
- Sully Starts to Run (4:33)
- Drive Away From Pier (3:41)
- Matrix Breaks Lock (2:13)
- Matrix Jumps to Floor (1:40)
- Cut to Val Verde (1:23)
- Matrix Climbs Up Bank (3:15)
- Soldier Gets Pitchfork/Matrix Runs Up Steps (3:47)
- Arius Crashes Through Window (3:20)
- Matrix Approaches General (0:56)
- Somewhere, Somehow, Someone’s Gotta Pay [We Fight For Love] (written by Tony Thompson, Michael Des Barres, Andy Taylor and John Taylor, performed by The Power Station) (4:36)
- Soldier Gets Pitchfork (Alternate) (1:29) [BONUS]
- Don’t Disturb My Friend (Alternate) (3:21) [BONUS]
- Don’t Disturb My Friend (Alternate Mix) (3:56) [BONUS]
Running Time: 61 minutes 32 seconds
La-La Land Records LLLCD-1185 (1985/2011)
Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Orchestrations by Greig McRitchie. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by Ken Runyon. Score produced byJames Horner and Jay Gruska. Album produced byNick Redman, M. V. Gerhard and Matt Verboys.